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Friday, June 10, 2005

Plain English flap

Interesting blog exchanges have taken place recently between Dave Rattigan of Scambled Eggs and linguists Pullum and Liberman of Language Log. At issue was whether or not these sentences uttered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are "plain English:"
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.
The deeper issue was that it appears that the Plain English Campaign (PEC) has begun language policing instead of just advocating that public documents be written in plain English rather than legalese and other forms of English which are not transparent to the general public. Plain English advocates, whether in the U.K. (PEC) or the U.S. or elsewhere encourage the federal government, insurance companies, attorneys, and, yes, even linguists themselves, who often write in academese, to use ordinary, clear, plain English in their documents so the public can understand them.

As a linguist, I have applauded the prodding of linguist Wallace Chafe to fellow linguists to write and read their conference papers in ordinary English, rather than academese. My mind wanders at linguistics conferences when a paper that a linguist is reading is filled with techno-jargon. I find it difficult enough to read the "fine print" of credit card rules and other legal writing that I often give up and quit reading.

How does all this relate to Bible translation? Some English Bible versions are written in plain English, English which is transparent to all fluent speakers of English. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) has even been recognized for its clear, plain English when it was awarded the Crystal Mark award in 1996 by the PEC. Many English Bible versions are not written in clear English which follows rules for good English composition and comprehension.

I happen to appreciate the CEV a great deal because it is written in good quality, clear English, rather than translationese. There are no convoluted sentences. The language is transparent to readers. Any fluent English speaker, whether a newcomer to the Bible, or an older user, can understand the wordings of the CEV. Of course, some object because the CEV to them it sounds too "plain" without the traditional older English cadences of the KJV tradition or the more literarily sophisticated sentences of many recently published English versions.

I don't want to take the time here today to discuss the pros and cons of having Bibles which are transparent to the source texts of the original biblical languages versus ones which are transparent in English. Actually, that is a false dichotomy in my opinion, since I think it is possible to retain transparency to the original texts while also writing in good quality, clear, understandable plain English. Oh, I need to mention that the use of the term "plain English" is somewhat technical. It does not refer to language which is "dumbed down." It refers to language which is clear, generally concise, not convoluted, lacking run-on sentences, obscure techno-speak, superfluous circumlocutions, and obsolete vocabulary and syntax.

Let us Bible translators ask ourselves if we confuse Bible readers in the same way that those who write in legalese or academese or government-speak confuse their readers. I, personally, think it is possible to have our cake (accuracy and literary quality) and eat it too (an enjoyable meal of good quality, clear language), when we are working with important documents, including translation of the Bible.

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At Fri Jun 10, 08:20:00 AM, Anonymous Dave Rattigan said...

I should say that "linguist-theologian" ought to be qualified with the prefix "armchair"!

At Fri Jun 10, 10:41:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, I wondered about putting in the "armchair," Dave, but I wasn't sure how well that would sit (pun intended) with me. You have blogged so well about language issues that I think you are more than an armchair linguist. In any case, before you commented I had revised your description further. And now I have revised the sentence even more.


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